Would you describe your childhood as free? When you were younger, did your parents allow you to explore the world around you — such as to venture into your neighborhood or the woods alone with friends? Or did you feel adults were always nearby, supervising your every move?
In “I Had a Gloriously Wild Childhood. That’s Why I Wrote ‘How to Train Your Dragon’,” Cressida Cowell, an author and illustrator, writes:
I was 9 years old, hanging on as tightly as I could to my father’s legs as he dangled over the edge of a gigantic sea cliff on a tiny little island off the west coast of Scotland. He was trying to see whether the bird’s nest some 15 feet below was being inhabited by a white-tailed sea eagle or a buzzard.
The answer was important to my father. Sea eagles had only just been reintroduced into the Hebrides, and a nest would be a sign that they might be able to re-establish themselves in that part of the world. What was more important to me was that the gale whistling briskly off the Atlantic sea should not blow us off the cliff entirely: If I lost hold of my father’s legs, he would plunge to his death on the rocks below.
I remember wondering, as the cold rain lashed my face and the wind tore at my flapping anorak: “Why on earth is my father so unconcerned? What would make him trust his life to my puny little 9-year-old arms? How can I possibly be related to this wonderful but crazily fearless man?” When a sudden gust of wind made him sway a few moments later, my heart stopped. I could feel myself losing my grip on his legs.
The adventure on the cliff top was just one of many exciting but terrifying experiences in my gloriously wild childhood. There was the time my father accidentally tied the boat to a lobster pot instead of a buoy and we were blown out to sea. There was a trip out in a storm where the waves turned into great hills, and we had to bail out the water coming over the side of the boat. When I was a child, these experiences had been scary. But when I look back as an adult, I realize how much I owe to the freedom to explore nature that my parents allowed and encouraged.
It troubles me that children of today do not have that same freedom. What might that mean for their future creativity and their relationship to the natural world? As we face the threat of the climate crisis and the slow destruction of habitats around the world, we must give children the opportunity to interact with nature in a “wild” way, so that they learn to preserve the natural world around us.
The Opinion essay continues:
I spent a great deal of time as a child on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. The island had no roads or electricity — just a storm-blown, windy wilderness of sea birds and heather. My family and I would be dropped off like castaways on the island by a local boatman for the summer holidays and picked up again weeks later. While we were staying on the island, we had no way of contacting the outside world.
Because there wasn’t any electricity, the house was lit by candlelight. Without a telephone or a television, I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evenings, my father told me and my siblings tales of the Vikings who invaded the island 1,200 years before, of the quarrelsome ancient British tribes who fought one another and of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs of the island. That was when I first started writing stories about dragons and Vikings, way back when I was 9 years old, by candlelight on that little island. These were the stories that later turned into “How to Train Your Dragon.”
My siblings and I — growing up in the 1970s — had a freedom children today do not. “Bye kids, come back when you’re hungry,” our parents said as we walked out the door for our adventures. “Don’t fall off a cliff!” Ah, what unimaginable liberty.
Trees grow throughout children’s books. From “Peter Pan” to “A Monster Calls,” “The Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter,” trees are refuges, prisons and symbols of nature’s potency. They can be a friendly home, like the Hundred Acre Wood in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” or give a sense of menace, like the snowy forest in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They can also be symbolic, like the cement-filled dying tree in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The writers I loved when I was a child were similarly inspired by magical landscapes and nature: Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Diana Wynne Jones, Lloyd Alexander, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.H. White — and so many others.
Today, children have much less unsupervised access to the countryside. I worry that they may never know the magic of the wilderness, the power of trees and the thrilling excitement of exploring nature without an adult hovering behind them. And so I write books for children who will never know what the freedom of my childhood was like.
My father never found out whether the nest in the cliff belonged to a white-tailed sea eagle or a buzzard. The gust of wind that scared me brought him to his senses, and he scrambled back up the side of the cliff before I could lose my grip. We staggered back through the gale to the little stone house on the island where, in the candlelight, we dried out in front of the fire.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
What are some of the benefits of unsupervised play, especially in nature, at a young age? What do children lose when their freedom to play and explore the world around them is limited? What, on the other hand, might be the drawbacks of great liberty?
Have you read any of Ms. Cowell’s books? If yes, what did you learn or enjoy about them? If not, does reading the article make you curious about them? Why?
If or when you have children, how much freedom would you allow them? Would you make opportunities for free play in nature a priority? Is a gloriously wild childhood something you would want to give them?